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May 4, 2015

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How a good argument for education falls flat

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is a smart and well-educated man. Jindal, who wants to be Mitt Romney’s running mate, has an important message when it comes to public education in the United States. His message has some solid answers to some very basic questions.

I have a question for Gov. Jindal? Why did you deliver your message like a third-grader?

First the message or, at least, the salient parts of it.

“America has a moral imperative to improve our education system. There are certainly many practical reasons to take action. We have gone within a generation from being a country that clearly ranked first in educational achievement and attainment to one that now ranks in the middle of the pack compared to other industrialized countries ...

“We cannot maintain our economic or security status as the world’s lone superpower based on such results in a economy increasingly driven by technology. Studies have shown that improving educational results is one of the most effective ways to boost health outcomes, lower incarceration and crime rates, prevent welfare spending, grow the economy, and improve our quality of life.”

At this point let me take a break for a vote. All who believe what Gov. Jindal says, raise your hands. Looks like it is nearly unanimous approval.

There’s more. “We have long believed that a child’s outcome as an adult should not be determined by the circumstances of his birth. A child’s race, gender, geography or socioeconomic status should not determine how well he does. We instead embrace the idea that any child willing to work hard and get a great education can grow up to become the next president of the United States, entrepreneur, engineer, doctor, lawyer, teacher, nurse, mom, dad, professional football player, or whatever.

“Our children only grow up once, and they deserve the best education we can give them …”

I hear an almost unanimous chorus of approval once again. In fact, right here in Clark County, one of the major issues we face at the political level is whether we are going to allow the forces of the status quo — those invested in the way things are, which is not very good right now — to stop the prospects of reform, which hold out the promise of better schools and, therefore, more successful children.

In our School Board races, the issue becomes one of whether we support Superintendent Dwight Jones and his difficult and, yes, sometimes painful reform agenda, or whether we want to undermine this effort and revert to the status quo. If you believe anything Gov. Jindal has been saying, the answer is clear — reform.

But, I digress. Back to Jindal’s message: “There are certainly many education reforms that compete for attention and resources and have become fads over time. ... The research, however, is clear that the variable with the greatest impact on student achievement is the effectiveness of a child’s teacher. Nothing else comes close. ... I am not sure you need a study to tell you having a great teacher in every classroom should be our top priority, but our policies seem designed to accomplish the opposite.”

Jindal then cited many examples of how an effective teacher can affect a child’s future earnings by tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars during his or her lifetime. So let’s hear it for good teachers. That is what Superintendent Jones is shooting for, and I believe that is what every parent and every citizen should be trying to achieve.

So, here is the point:

Jindal goes on to point out the absolute need for effective reform of a brilliant idea — a public education for every American. He even suggests, among a number of good ideas, something that every person in business knows to be the truth and every parent knows instinctively: “We must end hiring, firing, promotion and payment policies based on seniority rather than effectiveness.”

In short, it was a long dissertation on what is wrong with our public education and what can be made right with a few significant reforms — just like the ones being undertaken here in Clark County. But then he fell way short for a man who wants to lead.

He fell into the trap of a political hack. He took a great idea, one that would be accepted wholeheartedly by the citizens of every state and every city because we all know what he is talking about, and made it an attack on President Barack Obama.

He blamed the president for spending billions of dollars during the recession to keep teachers, police officers and firefighters working across the country and not requiring local school districts to hire and fire on some federally mandated schedule. Huh?

When the top priority of this country was to keep people working — the Republicans call that JOBS — Jindal is castigating the president for doing just that. And then he has the nerve to demand that the federal government impose its will on local school districts across the country! Am I the only one who thinks I have fallen through the keyhole into some GOP Wonderland?

Can you imagine if those billions to keep our teachers working came with strings from the federal government? Jindal would have been among the first to cry foul and invoke the limited powers clause of the Constitution. He would have railed against the federal mandates. Instead, he is advocating them. Again I say, huh?

Sorry, Governor, you can’t have it both ways. And the worst part of all this is that you took a very compelling argument — one I know you are passionate about — and ruined it by forcing people to line up on either side of the political divide.

Once you blamed President Obama for doing something good without doing something bad along with it, you turned half the electorate away. Once you decreed that the federal government should have imposed its will on local governments and school boards, you lost the other half. Instead of keeping your argument about schools and our kids, and how to educate them the best way we can so they can fix in the future the mess we have made in the present, you lost the argument. And that argument should not be lost!

But that is what politics does these days. It subsumes good ideas. For the country to win, it is not necessary for one side or the other to lose. To suggest otherwise, as you have done, Governor, is a third-grade proposition and not the hallmark of an educated leader. You can and should do better than that.

A quality public education is not a matter for politics. It is a matter for parents and citizens who will depend on today’s young people for tomorrow’s rewards. We ought to be smart enough to get that part right.

Brian Greenspun is publisher and editor of the Las Vegas Sun.

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  1. Mr. Greenspun,

    I must disagree with you to some extent that Gov. Jindal's criticism of President Obama is unwarranted.

    It is my opinion that the Stimulus package did much to curry favor with public employee unions, such as those for teachers. I think we can both agree that having effective teachers in the classroom is vital, but I do not see how Obama's policies have advanced that goal. If anything, they have stymied that by further entrenching the teacher unions that insist on seniority being the controlling factor.

    Just look at the opposition to the five-star ranking system from the unions here. I'm sure that Gov. Jindal would applaud that program, but current federal policy might very well say it is discriminatory.

    The Stimulus package was aimed at keeping *any* public employee on the job without regard to how good they are on that job. I know that many Libertarians and Republicans will disagree with me, but I do not see a major problem with the government (i.e. the Department of Education) setting minimum standards that public employees must meet in order to stay employed.

    President Obama did not address that issue at all. He was concerned only with keeping his supporters at their current pay levels, and not with the quality of the education our children receive.

  2. First of all, we need to get POLITICS and politicians OUT of education. This is a people industry, that interacts intimately with the lives of young people and their families in order to effect educational and social success and growth.

    If a citizen were to be a "fly on the wall" at any public school in the country this time of year, the political alliances that present would rival that of the hit television show on CBS, Survivor! Many of you who are familiar with this reality show, know that changes made are determined on whose "side" one is on, or a person's degree of "loyalty". Currently, throughout the USA, school staff are being divided, reshuffled, isolated, without much regard to strengths and weaknesses, in order to accommodate the whims of a few at the expense of many, detracting from best practices and sound teaching. And the lines of distinction are constantly changing, depending on who one makes the "deals" with, even taking into play "the immunity factor". We can all say that it is a competition and the best team wins, but ultimately, the real winner is one sole individual, not the whole team. To the one winner, the spoils (support, funding, favors).

    An example of this game playing on a grander scale is the "RACE to the TOP" competition for funding. School districts had to compete for very needed money. But there were very intricate targets built within this particular game challenge for money, which already picked the winners before the game began. Not all districts have the ability to track or do certain things, and the creators of RACE to the TOP designed the game with that in mind--the deck was stacked a certain path for winners. Countless needy districts missed out due to such technicalities. Part 1of 2

    Blessings and Peace,

  3. Continued, Part 2 of 2
    Education in the United States of America is under the influence of corporate billionaires. No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top are creations of these corporate billionaires. Now, you should also know this: that the very wealthy, powerful, elite billionaires of the USA, are are unfairly influencing public education. It's true! I really had NO idea of this until reading the Winter, 2011 Dissent article, "Got Dough? How Billionaires Rule Our Schools," by Joanne Barkan.

    Instead of believing in the illusion that teachers have any say, set any policy, run any school, let's look at the political straw men (politicians), listen to what they are saying, how they plan to effect change in education. Most of the time, they are simply relaying a plan presented to them by special interests groups as ALEC, full of individuals who court and pay favors for a living. Neighborhoods and communities should be calling the shots in what happens at their neighborhood schools, not distant politicians or ALEC who are not affected by what is going on within a given neighborhood school. People need to reconnect and take responsibility for their child's school and ultimately, their child's education. It has to start at a very localized and personal level.

    Blessings and Peace,

  4. I like the statement in the article that the best education occurs between a live teacher and a student. Instead of the billions school districts spend on machines to teach students, that money would be better spent on hiring more full-time live teachers.

    The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 has a title re: machine education, educational media, instructional technology, whatever you want to call it. Under that title, private media companies like Bell&Howell, Apple, IBM, etc., found a gold mine in fooling schools that their machines could either do the job better than live teachers or greatly assist in that.

    We're still in the same quandary about what to do to improve schools as we were in 1965. In short, computers should not be in schools during elementary, middle school, or junior high years. The proper role of machines is to assist, not replace, live teachers. Machines are ok to calculate business finances and build cars, but not to educate kids.

    In K-12, machines are good for educating under-performing or over-performing kids and for finding information in media centers/libraries. That's it. For the majority of students in the middle, a live teacher is more effective than a machine.

  5. You call what Dwight Jones is doing reform? You must be joking. Bullying teachers, quantifying student achievement in a ridiculous star system (and not releasing how each school was scored), increasing administration costs... that's reform? Go and talk to some teachers and see what they think of Jones. I've been a teacher in this district for 7 years, and I've never seen staff morale this bad... ever. It's not the layoffs, either... it's how we've been treated by Jones and the board. Unless that can be fixed, things will not get better any time soon.

    I'd take an apology from the Superintendent and the Board for their actions as a start.

    Maybe you could tell me, how do you quantify an effective teacher? Test scores are but a snapshot in time, and a really bad one at that: there are too many variables that are outside the teacher's control on any given test day to fairly attribute that student's scores to a teacher. You want to pay teachers based on performance? Fine. As soon as you tell me how to do it fairly, I'm 100% on board.

    You want to know what would work? Community involvement, parental involvement, sufficient funding, and treating educators like professionals instead of the enemy. That'd be TRUE reform.

  6. Clear evidence that the Governor is using talking points.... the US HAS NEVER ranked first!! Never. The first international assessment was given in 1967: The 1st International Mathematics Study, written Torsten Husen- a Finnish mathematician.

    The US ranked 12th out of 13. The countries in order were Israel, Japan, Belgium, Finland, Germany, England, Scotland, Netherlands, France, Australia, US, Sweden. We were significantly BELOW the international average and no where near the scores of the top 9 countries.

    I repeat, we have NEVER ranked first in the world or in "industrialized" countries.


    In addition, on the 2007 TIMSS assessment grade 4 and grade 8 students in the US scored "significantly above the international average scale" as reported by the Brookings Institute and the National Math advisory panel.

    Think of the scores on a bell curve. We're on the top left slope, just before the vertex, not the bottom.

    I really wish politicians (and the public at large) would do their own research instead of relying on misnomers published in newspapers.

  7. Reform won't happen until the people of this country truly value education. I don't mean give lip service to it, I mean 100% value education and the content I teach in the classroom.

    Evidence of valuing education comes from parents and politicians no longer using phrase like...

    "I never use that in my life, why are they teaching you that?"

    "You'll never need to know that, just learn it for the test."

    "My child can't do math."

    And many more along those same lines. We say we value education, but at every turn we stab it in the back with put downs.

    There were studies done on those countries that out perform the US. The number one difference is the value that is put on what is taught in the classroom. (Teacher content knowledge and lack of behavior problems are next on the list of differences)

    Teachers are trusted, the standards are trusted, and the curriculum is trusted. Parents don't tell their children they will never need to solve algebraic equations in their "real life" (probably because they know they do), they have their children reading the books the teachers tell them they need to read.

    That is education reform. The day I have every parent's support in the classroom and at home, is the day we have begun to achieve true education reform.

  8. Reforms are useless unless parents and our society as a whole begin to focus the art and science of learning. Right now students are merely farm animals and consumers for the corporations. Parrots for the media and politicians. Thinking has been replaced by entertainment. Common sense and politeness are things of the past. What ever happened to enlightenment through education? It is truly a benefit to the government and corporations to have a public so entertained and so polarized against each other as not to question.

    Does any citizen of average intelligence really believe that a new president will make any fundamental difference in the way this country is run? The lobbyist will all be the same. Their agenda will be the same and the money that goes to politicians will still come from the same places. Ask yourself this question: Is it in their best interest for children of this country to be well educated? Everything can be outsourced to other countries where people are more educated and will work for less money.

    30 years from now, America, currently the world's police force will be the world's janitor if we don't do something about our children's education. It's gonna take a lot more than money to fix this.

  9. I assume Jindal is referencing the recent Harvard study that attempted to determine how much more money a person can earn in his working life because of effective teachers. He, and you by extension, overstate the potential gains. The study determined that a teacher could positively effect the classroom by $250,000 over their lifetimes. That's $250,000 for the whole class, not per kid. Say there are 25 kids in a classroom, and they work for 40 years (age 20-60). That's about an extra $250 per year. Not nearly as big a deal as Jindal makes it sound.